Most of the Royals and their cast of supporting characters portrayed in The Crown have their secrets that, at one point or another, are laid bare for us all to see. But for one man who appears in season 3, it took some 40 years before his secret was finally revealed to the world.
Sir Anthony Blunt, played in The Crown by Samuel West (who previously played him in BBC’s 2003 TV mini-series Cambridge Spies), was a member of the famous Cambridge Five spy ring, a group of five men who were recruited by the Soviet Union during World War II. While a member of the British Army and MI5, the United Kingdom’s domestic counterintelligence agency, during the 1940s, Blunt leaked classified information to Soviet intelligence agents.
Publicly, Blunt was an esteemed art historian. He was a professor at the University of London and director of the university’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art. In 1945, he became Surveyor of the King’s — and, later, Queen’s — Pictures. He spent 27 years working as an art advisor for the Royals, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service in that role in 1956.
In 1964, he confessed to his past as a spy when he was promised immunity from prosecution in return for his cooperation. And despite his admission to sharing state secrets, Blunt was allowed to keep his art advising role in Buckingham Palace. It’s unclear whether the Queen herself knew about Blunt at that time, but The New York Times once reported that it’s likely she did.
According to a Washington Post article that was archived by the CIA, Blunt lived a “quiet life” in London after his confession. That all changed when his identity was publicly unmasked by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The Queen stripped him of his title and knighthood, and he was forced to resign from various academic honors, including as a fellow at the British Academy. He died four years later of a heart attack in 1983. He was 75.
In a statement after his identity was discovered, Blunt said he became a spy because of his “political conscience” and that he believed at the time that Russia and the Communist Party were the best defense against Germany’s Nazi fascism. He later said in his memoir that he regretted his decision.
“The atmosphere in Cambridge was so intense, the enthusiasm for any anti-fascist activity was so great, that I made the biggest mistake of my life,” he wrote.